I was on the debate team in college. We were very much a rag tag bunch, thrown together at the last minute by a visiting professor who had a penchant for debate. He put together a group of eight students, enough for four teams, and taught us the basics. I’m not sure now, but I don’t think any of us had any experience prior to this short one semester experiment. My partner was a very pretty young woman whose greatest accomplishment during the debate season was being asked out on dates by our opponents. In fact, on one of our critiques, a judge actually wrote “a very pretty young woman” as his only comment about her performance.
During a very difficult debate, one in which we were clearly outmatched by far superior debaters, one of our opponents quoted from both “The Christian Science Monitor” and “Playboy” magazine. He was throwing around facts and quotes that were beyond me. I felt like my best strategy was to throw everyone off guard. I began my time by stating, “Since we are from a Baptist college, I do not have access to neither ‘The Christian Science Monitor’ nor ‘Playboy’ magazine.” I got a laugh, we lost the debate, and my partner got a date for the evening. Success! Everyone was happy.
A skill that has served me well through life is the ability to not take myself too seriously. The reason I remembered that experience this afternoon is because I just read an interesting article in, of all places, “The Christian Science Monitor.” I don’t read it often because I can’t get beyond what my father always said about the Christian Science religion – it is neither Christian nor scientific.
Anyway, the writer of the article made the point that churches that are overly political, especially very conservative, are driving young people away. It is an important issue because study after study has shown that the church is losing its young adults. If you actually need an official study to convince you of that truth then you must not be paying attention when you go to church.
What was interesting to me is the opinion that churches that express strong conservative opinions are the ones suffering the most from a loss of youth. Right wing politics appeals to parents with young children with its emphasis on morality and keeping our world safe. Those things don’t appeal to young adults. That does not mean young adults have no morality, just that they have a different standard of morality. For example, they are likely more interested in feeding the hungry than picketing an abortion clinic, or volunteering at an AIDS clinic than fighting gay marriage.
I don’t want to turn this into a political article (that would defeat my whole purpose in writing) but I do want to raise the question of why have we become so political? Why do we feel it is necessary to be so politically partisan at church? The point of the article I referenced earlier is that young people are staying away from the church because of the blatant politicking that takes place in what is supposed to be a spiritual environment. We invite them to come for spiritual direction and what they get is patriotic propaganda.
A couple of years ago I met a very nice man in a hospital waiting room and we had time for an extended conversation. He talked for a long time about politics, being very clear about his desire to elect a new President and his confidence that if we will simply choose a few more Republicans all of our problems will be solved I didn’t offer much of an opinion since it was clear that his beliefs were much more important to him than mine were to me. I listened patiently.
He then turned the conversation to his church. He spoke graciously about his church and pastor and suggested that I would like it. He even invited me to attend in the near future. I’m sorry, but I could not resist the temptation to ask if it was necessary to be a Republican in order to come to his church. I even asked if they had a separate Sunday School class for Democrats.
My new friend was stunned for a moment, almost as if I had kicked his dog. We had a short conversation about making people comfortable or turning them away by our overly strong political opinions. Someone who favors the Republican platform would probably be very welcome; however, many young people are turned away, not because they are rejecting the Gospel but because they are rejecting the politics.
Just last week, the Lectionary reading was the passage where we are told of the imperative of lifting up Jesus before all men. When that occurs, people will be drawn to Him. The tragedy is that we often lift up someone other than Jesus. In many churches that person is a politician who sounds like he/she might be one of us, but in reality is campaigning for office.
I did develop a few debating skills during my college experience. My nice looking partner and I actually prevailed in about half of our debates – she did what she does best and I handled the speaking. However, the last place where I want to utilize those debating skills is at church. Let’s leave the flags, campaign speeches, and patriotic songs outside and gather around the cross instead. That is a message that speaks to everyone, even the young.